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Joseph Addison

Literary Criticism of Joseph Addison

Though he was also a poet and dramatist, Joseph Addison (1672–1719) is best known as an essayist, and indeed he contributed much to the development of the essay form, which, like the literary form of the letter, flourished in the eighteenth century. Together with his friend and colleague Richard Steele whom he had known since his schooldays, he authored a series of articles in the periodicals the Tatler (1709–1711) and the Spectator (1711–1714).

It was his ambition to bring philosophical, political, and literary discussion within the reach of the middle classes. He was a politician as well as a writer, holding positions of undersecretary of state, lord lieutenant, and then chief secretary for Ireland, as well as being a member of the Whig or Liberal Party from 1708 until his death. Steele too was a political liberal, and the two men used their periodicals for literary, moral, and educational purposes. To these ends, they offered character sketches of fictional personages which commented on contemporary issues and manners, and offered satiric portraits from a broadly humanitarian and largely middle-class framework of values. The “essay” as developed by these two writers – who wrote anonymously for their periodicals – was both a personal document as well as an attempt to probe the truth of things, in a dramatic and witty manner but ultimately for the moral enlightenment of their readers. The essays were journalistic inasmuch as they addressed a cross-section of topical events and concerns, ranging from codes of conduct, fashions in dress, marriage conventions, to political propaganda. Catering as it did for an increasingly literate middle-class readership, the Tatler was immediately popular and its undoing was its involvement in political partisanship; committed to Whig or Liberal causes, it saw the downfall of the Whig Party and was increasingly attacked by the Tory press, as the Conservative Party rose to power. Only two months after its demise in January 1711, the two writers launched the Spectator, which they managed to keep free of political partisanship. This latter periodical became famous for its characterizations of fictitious personae, such as Sir Roger, Sir Andrew, and Will Honeycomb, which were conducted with a vitality and coherence that affected subsequent novelistic writing.

After the closing of the Spectator in 1712, Addison and Steele launched the Guardian. This, however, never achieved the popularity of its predecessors, and it was the Tatler and the Spectator in their reprinted forms which continued to command a significant reading public through the nineteenth century. Most of the valuable literary criticism is contained in the pages of the Spectator, which had included extended series of essays on more serious issues, including philosophy and literature, in an attempt to mold and refine the critical tastes of its readership. These tastes were partly confined within a neoclassical scheme of values, drawing on Aristotle and Longinus, as evident in the essays on wit, tragedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet they also made use of more recent observations, such as those on psychology by John Locke.

Indeed, although these periodicals were addressed to the middle classes, their function was to reform the values of this class rather than merely to propagate or expound them. In the Spectator No. 6, Steele referred to his age as “a corrupt Age,” devoted to luxury, wealth, and ambition rather than to the virtues of “good-will, of Friendship, of Innocence.”1 Steele urges that people’s actions should be directed toward the public good rather than merely private interests, and that these actions should be governed by the dictates of reason, religion, and nature (Spectator, 68–70). In the Spectator there are several essays or articles dealing with specifically literary-critical issues, such as the nature of tragedy, wit, genius, the sublime, and the imagination. As far as tragedy goes, Addison and Steele advise following the precepts of Aristotle and Horace. Their general prescription is to follow nature, reason, and the practice of the ancients (Spectator, 87).

In 1711, the year in which Pope’s Essay on Criticism attempted to distinguish between true and false wit, Addison attempted the same task in Nos. 61 and 62 of the Spectator. In the first of these, he argues that puns and quibbles are species of “false” wit; with the exception of Quintilian and Longinus, none of the ancient writers, he says, made a distinction between puns and true wit. In his second piece on wit, Addison finds Dryden’s definition of wit as “a Propriety of Words and Thoughts adapted to the Subject” to be too broad: it could apply to all good writing, not merely to wit (Spectator, 108). He prefers John Locke’s distinction, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, between wit and judgment, cited above. Locke had argued that those endowed with wit and those capable of judgment are not usually the same persons, since these involve diverse procedures. Wit consists in bringing together ideas which resemble one another, with “quickness” and “variety.” Under this general procedure fall the various rhetorical tropes such as metaphor and allusion. Judgment, on the other hand, lies in separating ideas carefully, such that one idea is not mistaken for another (Essay, II, xi, 2). Addison himself adds that not every resemblance of ideas can be termed wit: the resemblance must give delight and surprise to the reader (Spectator, 105). He includes under Locke’s definition of wit not only metaphor but also similes, allegories, parables, fables, dreams, and dramatic writing. He further adds that resemblance of ideas is not the only source of wit: the opposition of ideas can also produce wit (Spectator, 110).

On the basis of Locke’s definition of wit, Addison produces a definition of false wit: whereas true wit consists in the resemblance and congruity of ideas, false wit is produced by the resemblance and congruity of single letters, as in anagrams; of syllables, as in doggerel rhymes; of words, as in puns and quibbles; and of entire sentences. Addison suggests that, in addition to true and false wit, there is a hybrid species, which he calls “mixed wit,” which consists partly in the resemblance of words and partly in the resemblance of ideas. Such mixed wit, which he finds in writers such as Cowley and Ovid (but not in Dryden, Milton, the Greeks, and most Roman authors), is a “Composition of Punn and true Wit . . . Its Foundations are laid partly in Falsehood and partly in Truth” (Spectator, 107–108). Addison cites with approval the French critic Bouhours’ view that “it is impossible for any Thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its Foundation in the Nature of Things: That the Basis of all Wit is Truth; and that no thought can be valuable, of which good Sense is not the Ground-work” (Spectator, 108–109). These remarks come strikingly close to Pope’s definition of true wit as  “Nature to advantage dress’d”: both formulations ground wit in truth, the similarity here revealing the profoundly neoclassical disposition adopted by Addison. In No. 65 of the Spectator, Steele similarly states: “I shall always make Reason, Truth, and Nature the Measures of Praise and Dispraise,” urging the use of these standards rather than the “generality of Opinion” (Spectator, 111).


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